NEW YORK — Christian Picciolini knows more than a little something about extremist groups. Today he is the co-founder of the nonprofit peace advocacy organization and counter-extremism consulting group Life after Hate, but he was once a neo-Nazi.
Picciolini grew up in Blue Island, Illinois, the son of blue-collar Italian immigrants. His parents worked hard, often leaving him alone for hours. Not exactly the home one envisions a would-be extremist growing up in, but it was exactly the kind of life that left him feeling lonely and in search of belonging.
As he tells the story, he was a “relatively normal teenager” who happened to be smoking pot in an alley one afternoon when a car screeched to a halt in front of him.
The driver jumped out of the car, yanked the joint from 14-year-old Picciolini’s mouth and told him, “‘That’s what the communists and Jews want you to do to keep you docile,'” Picciolini told The Times of Israel last week.
That man was Clark Martell, founder of the Chicago Area SkinHeads, CASH, America’s first organized neo-Nazi white power skinhead group. Picciolini joined the movement in 1987, and left in 1995 when at age 22 he formally renounced all ties.
Since disavowing his bigoted past, Picciolini has been active in spreading a message of coexistence. His experience embedded within neo-Nazi culture gives him special insight, which he draws upon when addressing groups or panels.
In his role of former skinhead turned peacemaker, Picciolini spoke last week at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now” summit. Held on November 17 in New York, Never is Now was billed as a “first-of-its-kind summit focused on contemporary anti-Semitism.” Speaking alongside Jewish community insiders and interfaith leaders, the former extremist said he perceives a disturbing trend among alt-right adherents, who are encouraged by this election cycle’s political developments.
“At the time I was at my most vulnerable, I was breaking free from my parents’ influence. For me it was a sense of belonging, a sense of something noble. I was told diversity is a code for white genocide. I was told Latinos were bringing drugs into neighborhoods. I was told Jewish people controlled the media and our banking systems,” said Picciolini, who wrote the recently-published memoir “Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead.”
So while during the recent poisonous campaign cycle Trump might not have authored anti-Semitic tweets, or ever specifically mentioned Jews, he trafficked in the kind of imagery favored by those perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes, Picciolini said.
As such, all Americans — regardless of religion or race — must be vigilant, he said.
“I think people are being absolutely complacent. People are hopeful and I understand that, but I for one am not giving him [Trump] the benefit of the doubt. There is no track record of him or anyone surrounding him of understanding what makes this country great, and so we must be extremely vigilant. I know how they think. I was one of them,” said Picciolini.
The raising of an odious head
This resurgence of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world provided a somber backdrop for the ADL conference, the first meeting of its kind in the organization’s history. The daylong event focused on contemporary anti-Semitism, the challenges and threats Jewish communities worldwide face.
“More recently, while anti-Semitism has been present under the surface of society, it was more like a persistent and nagging ache, a chronic condition that you knew about and simply tried to keep under control. We were vigilant. We monitored. We spoke out and we fought back,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the watchdog group’s CEO, said in his opening remarks.
“By and large, America and American life have been remarkably tolerant and welcoming,” Greenblatt said. “The Jewish community lives here in this country with historic privilege and has achieved unprecedented success. And yet, today, I think all of us fear that something has changed. There are troubling signs. Now they may be subtle, they may go unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans, but we see them. We know.”
‘There are troubling signs. They may go unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans, but we see them’
Since Donald Trump’s election, the 26 regional offices of the Anti- Defamation League have reported a steady stream of notices, phone calls and emails regarding hate crimes, vandalism and bias incidents. Additionally there have been over 400 hate incidents, many anti-Semitic in nature, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It’s a situation that has left Greenblatt both discouraged and resolute, he said in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Discouraged by emboldened extremists
During the 2016 election campaign, said Greenblatt in his opening remarks, a presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, criticized Israel in a manner that evoked a blood libel. Another, Trump, unapologetically tweeted a Star of David meme created by white supremacists and promoted a campaign slogan closely tied to Charles Lindbergh, a notorious Nazi sympathizer, Greenblatt said. It was also a political season where white supremacists targeted Jews online with both anti-Semitic tropes and horrific images of the Holocaust.
“In short, the American Jewish community has not seen this level of anti-Semitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930s. Sadly, it is only being matched with escalating levels of hate toward other minorities, too, including Latinos, the disabled, Muslims, African-Americans, and the LGBT community,” Greenblatt said.
And yet, Greenblatt said he remains resolute in his, and the ADL’s, commitment to encouraging community leaders, religious clergy, elected officials and others to remain vigilant and “make clear that this level of vitriol will not be tolerated.”
“We were pleased by his [Trump’s] remarks last Tuesday and on “60 Minutes” but actions speak louder than words,” Greenblatt said.
Social media, particularly Twitter, offers one of the clearest pictures of how anti-Semitism exploded into the mainstream in recent months.
An ADL report released on October 19 documented the rise of anti-Semitic tweets targeting journalists. Many of the tweets used classic anti-Semitic tropes such as Jews control the media, Jews perpetrated 9/11, and Jews control global finance.
Additionally, Twitter attackers often include altered images of the journalists, depicting them inside gas chambers, ovens, or piled among the concentration camp dead.
Those tweets had an estimated 10 billion impressions, which ADL said contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language.
“That’s roughly the equivalent social media exposure advertisers could expect from a $20 million Super Bowl ad,” said Brittan Heller, director of technology and society for the ADL.
The New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman was one of several Jewish journalists targeted. Among the Twitter-based attacks he received were images of ovens, of his face superimposed over corpses and of Auschwitz’s infamous entry gates, the path painted over with the Trump logo, and the iron letters refashioned to read “Machen Amerika Great.”
“This is a brand new world we live in. Before, you might get a crazy screed in your mailbox, but nothing like this. They didn’t have a platform,” Weisman said at the conference. “I do think there is a real sense of empowerment now. You don’t want to be alarmist, but the message since the election is ‘We’re coming to get you.’”
According to the report, the Twitter attackers are disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the “alt-right,” a loosely connected group of extremists who adopt a white supremacist philosophy.
The ADL was careful to say it doesn’t hold Trump responsible for these tweets, or that conservatives are more prone to anti-Semitism. Yet, throughout the campaign Trump, and his son Donald Trump, Jr., frequently re-tweeted alt-Right and white supremacist tweets.
While social media and outlets such as Breitbart News appear to be the preferred tool of the alt-Right, there are also campus attacks on Jewish students coming from far left groups, often disguised as anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian, the ADL’s Greenblatt said.
“It’s safe to say we must not give the left a pass. Just because you come from the ideological left, no matter how you clothe it, it’s anti-Semitism,” said Greenblatt.
According to a recent Brandeis University study, “The presence of an active Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group,” is one of the best predictors of whether a campus will be seen as having a hostile environment toward Jews and Israel.
There seems to be an exception made for anti-Semitic speech and acts on college campuses. Where there is a sensitivity to prejudice against most minority groups, including African Americans, LGBTQ, and the disabled, the same sensitivity doesn’t appear to be extended to Jewish students.
“Anti-Zionism, hatred of Israel — it all gives anti-Semitism and hating Jews a respectable cloak,” said Dr. Einat Wilf, Baye Foundation Adjunct Fellow at the Washington Institute. “And if you say something to students and professors, they will immediately take offense at the notion that they are anti-Semitic. They will push back at the idea of being put in the same basket of deplorables. They think that because they are professors they are serious, they could not in any way be anti-Semitic.”
Indeed, the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus nearly doubled in 2015, according to the ADL’s June Audit of Anti-Semitism. Of the 941 incidents in 2015, assaults constituted 56 of them, a 50% increase from 2014 when 36 assaults were reported. Moreover, there were 90 incidents on 60 campuses in 2015 compared with 47 incidents on 43 campuses in 2014.
For Imam Abdullah Antepli, the results of the latest election hit doubly hard as both the father of two young children and a chaplain at Duke University.
“I don’t know which one is more painful, answering questions from my kids who wonder if they have a place in this country, or answering questions from students who feel their dreams of fitting in here have been stabbed,” Antepli said.
And yet, Trump’s election has ignited a fire in him.
Antepli sees it as an opportunity to work with Jewish groups against what he calls “an existential threat to our democracy that not only normalized anti-Semitism, it empowered it and mainstreamed it. We really have to overcome the lazy moderates and become radical peace makers.”
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